photo: Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong (Joe Puetz/Imagn)
In 2020, second baseman Kolten Wong seemed to solidify his importance to the St. Louis Cardinals lineup.
In the prime of his career at age 29, Wong settled in as his club’s leadoff hitter, filling a long-standing need. The left-handed batter logged a .350 on-base percentage, with only sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Brad Miller better.
For a team that features a strong defense which enhances the effectiveness of its pitching, home-grown Cardinal Wong was the glue up the middle alongside shortstop Paul DeJong and stationed between other defensive stalwarts Yadier Molina behind the plate and Harrison Bader in center.
Following the 2020 season, Wong earned his second consecutive National League Gold Glove Award and is generally recognized as the best defender in the game at his position.
In the end, none of that mattered.
Wong is a free agent today primarily because COVID-19 negatively impacted the game’s financial structure, and specifically that of the Cardinals.
Coming off a normal baseball season, Wong’s team option of $12.5 million for 2021 would have been exercised without question. But this past year has been anything but normal.
The Cardinals have stated their intent to cut payroll year to year and Wong was one of the few outlets that could to enable them to do so. However, they had to pay him a $1 million buyout fee when they declined the option on October 28.
President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak defended the jettisoning of Wong, calling it “the conservative, safer play.”
If fact, that statement could have been broadened to be the general slogan of the team’s entire approach for the 2020-2021 offseason.
When he officially dons another team’s uniform, Wong will complete his transformation to the poster child of what the 2021 Cardinals could have been instead of the new, more austere version that will next take the field at Busch Stadium.
Wong is now a free agent and is expected to fetch at least a two-year commitment from another team, though the average annual value of his new contract may be less than $12.5 million. He is the second-most appealing second baseman on the free agent market after offensive force D.J. LeMahieu.
For their part, the Cardinals assert that they have not closed the door on Wong returning for 2021, but no one seems to believe it has much of a chance of happening – probably not even them.
In fact, Wong’s designated successor at second base has already been announced as Tommy Edman, a competent defender, but not of the same skill level as Wong. More importantly, Edman will make almost $12 million less in 2021 than the man he is replacing would have received.
For a St. Louis team that relies on its defense to be its backbone, the loss of Wong coupled with the promise of Molina not returning could negate a significant part of that advantage. In the worst case, the pitching staff may feel the negative impact of a less stout defense behind them, as well.
On the other hand, no matter which team signs Wong, their 2021 defense will improve due to his presence, while the Cardinals continue their long, cold winter of being conservative and safe.
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